MacDuff’s Call: Unbottling our grief

We need to do better on Bereavement Leave

Cheryl Ashlie.

Cheryl Ashlie.

I heard an interview this week on a CBC Radio program, called The Current, during which the host, Anna Maria Tremonti, interviewed Julia Samuel, a grief psychotherapist who assists people in the area of death.

I had just got into my car, turned on the radio and caught them mid-conversation, where Ms. Samuel was explaining that the Victorians couldn’t talk about sex, but they were comfortable with death – and she said now the opposite is true.

Just hearing that one statement sent my thoughts back to the day I found out my best friend from high school had died of a brain aneurysm. He was in his mid-20s, training to be a teacher and full of life. I was devastated.

In turn, I reached out to my mom for support, condolences or anything that would help me with my despair, only to feel somewhat rejected in my grief, as she seemed unable to share in it and only offered minimal words of condolences.

I don’t want to give you the wrong opinion of my mom, as she was truly a caring and compassionate woman. But what I didn’t know and what she couldn’t share with me until later, as she herself could not understand her unusual response to the tragedy, was the fact that the Second World War, which she experienced, had taught her, like everyone from her generation, to push down any grief they felt for the young men they had known and lost in the war, because that was the only way that they would be able to ‘soldier on’ for the good of the country.

The death of my friend, who personified all of the young men she had forced herself to forget, threatened to open the flood gates and she struggled with letting that happen. So her first response was to shut down the emotion of grief, making it impossible for her to share, or show me compassion for my own grief.

My mom and I did not have a psychotherapist like Ms. Samuel to talk to, but we did have a good enough relationship that allowed my mom to later explain the turmoil she felt with my friend’s death. However, she also admitted that while she was sorry that she could not show her grief and she knew it was unhealthy – according to Ms. Samuel, 15 per cent of all psychological disorders are unresolved grief – she still was not willing to let down that inner wall that contained it. I knew that would be the end of that conversation, like so many of them that were attached to the aftermath of the war.

Tuning back into the radio conversation, Ms. Samuel was speaking about the loss of a child, which for any parent is an unspeakable horror.

Ms. Samuel explained: “It isn’t that the pain gets smaller, but you build your life around it and you learn to live.”

Having witnessed this painful journey when our best friends lost their oldest son to a tragic accident, I was reminded once again about the tendency of our society, even today, to pressure people into bottling up their grief, as if there is a prescribed time table when it will no longer exist.

Under the Canada Labour Code, Bereavement Leave is for three days, and if the loved one dies on the Friday and the weekend is the employee’s regularly scheduled days off, the employee is only entitled to the following Monday off.

Most can accept that if the death is that of an elderly parent who has lived a full life, returning to work in a few days could be manageable. But a child? We need to do better than this.

Ms. Samuel also offered sound advice in regards to assisting children to understand death. I provided palliative care for my mom in our home, as she did not want to die in a hospital, and this meant my kids, who were all school age at the time, were around her until she died.

I knew at the time that some people questioned this decision, but I felt death, being a part of life, was not something I should hide from them, which, according to Ms. Samuel, turns out to be a healthy approach.

Ms. Samuel ended her interview on this subject, sharing the view that “… what children don’t know, they make up. And what they make up is limitless and is much more frightening than the truth.”

Death is a difficult subject. But as Ms. Samuel says: “Grief needs to be expressed,” and we need to understand that “pain is the agent of change and it’s only through that that we adjust to this new reality that the person has died.”

I believe that children, like adults, need to be able to adjust to their new reality of a death and we need to be honest about death and what grief feels like, so that everyone in the family can deal with the pain.

I don’t regret my decision to have my children experience the death of my mom.

Hearing Ms. Samuel’s words made me reflect on my own experiences with grief and afforded me the opportunity to acknowledge that even though my mom was not able to support me when my friend died, she in turn, through her own death, gave our family the opportunity to grieve the loss of an amazing woman in an open and healthy environment, so that none of us had to bottle up our grief like she, and so many others, had, or have to do.

Cheryl Ashlie is a former Maple Ridge school trustee, city councillor, constituency assistant and current

citizen of the year.